Character Memory — Lessons From My Car and Eyeglasses

Rabbi Chaim Galfand

By Rabbi Chaim Galfand

Parshat Nitzavim

Growing up, my mother would tell me to “stand up straight!” Doing so required concentration and repetition and took some getting used to.

In time, though, I’d engrained the specific motor tasks of good posture. We call this “muscle memory” and use it to describe our ability to throw a ball, swim or repeat other common physical tasks, even if we haven’t done the activity in a long time. It’s as if our bodies automatically remember what to do in the heat of the moment. (Think of “The Karate Kid” car waxing and fence painting.)

This notion of a practiced movement turned reflexive action is on my mind precisely because Rosh Hashanah is next week.

I coined the term “character memory” as a corollary to muscle memory and believe the former is just as achievable and essential as the latter. Comparing physical training and character education is something I’ve been thinking about over the last few years. I believe we should practice exercising various character strengths until we automatically deploy them when needed. Parshat Nitzavim, read right before Rosh Hashanah, confirms my belief.

Nachmanides saw Nitzavim as the origin for the concept of teshuva (repentance). We read, “For the commandment that I command you this day: It is not too extraordinary for you, it is not too far away! It is not in the heavens …” Which command? That of teshuva,

Nachmanides says, because the passage preceding this sentence comprises many variations of the Hebrew root for teshuva: v’hashevota, v’shavta, v’shav, tashuv, yashuv. The repetitions signal emphasis. And I believe that having a higher quotient of character memory will mean fewer moments for which we need to repent.

Teshuva literally means return, as in turning back to something from which you’ve strayed. It raises the question: return to what? There have been different answers: Israel, moral awareness, God, the Jewish people. The biblical notion of returning to God gave way to the rabbinic era’s vision of teshuva as a path to moral growth through the process of self-education.

Teshuva is a response — an acknowledgment that we veered from where we knew we were supposed to be. Concrete analogies to daily life help me better understand more abstract concepts, and I keep coming back to two of them.

The first is to the magic materials behind “indestructible” eyeglasses that return to their proper shape even if bent. These materials aren’t magic, of course, but are appropriately called shape memory alloys; they’re conditioned to remember a correct form and to resist the forces that try to push them in the wrong direction. With education and practice, we can cultivate character that immediately pushes back against the forces that would twist us and remembers precisely where it needs to be.

The second analogy is the feature on many newer cars alerting you when you’ve begun to drift. It prompts you to return to your lane; it doesn’t make the change for you but points you in the right direction. We can develop character memory that similarly nudges us to stay within the boundaries of commendable behavior and does so with similar insistence and constancy. This fits nicely with seeing teshuva as “returning” (to the path).

One’s character rarely exists in a vacuum; rather, it comes into focus in relation to other people — especially the effect they have on us. Nitzavim recognizes spheres of influence. Referring to Canaan’s idols and their worshippers, the Torah says beware, “lest there be among you a root bearing-fruit of wormwood and poison-herb.”

Like plants, our location and surroundings affect us. Nitzavim continues by warning that outsiders will observe our conduct and “see the blows [dealt] this land and its sicknesses … by brimstone and salt, is all its land burnt, it cannot be sown, it cannot sprout.” Chizkuni, emphasizing the pitfalls of the company we keep, would have us look out for the misdeeds of others, because their influence can be devastating for the collective. Rather than reading that the individual “poisons” society, the Sefat Emet looks at the positive effects of community in serving as a bulwark against the actions of wayward individuals.

I won’t pretend that there’s an indisputable, objective list of what comprises character, but there is consensus. A team of 55 social scientists studied world religions, philosophies and psychology looking for agreed-upon virtues and character strengths found across cultures and time. Their research forms the basis for the VIA Institute on Character.

Similarly, in Judaism we believe that each of us is endowed with a full range of “middot” or character traits. Both agree that what distinguishes one person from another is not that you have one trait and I have another, but rather the degree or measure of the traits that exist in each of us. Most importantly, both recognize the uniqueness of each person and also their capacity to change.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira finds a kind of creativity in our process of returning to who we are meant to be; he believes growth and possibility must be uncovered much as a sculpture is hidden by a brute block of stone and must be drawn out.

My colleagues at Perelman Jewish Day School understand how each of us is affected by being in a good place with good teachings and with good people. We guide our young learners to a mindful awareness of their particular character strengths, helping them nourish and develop their virtues and traits as they aspire to character memory. The elementary years may be the optimal time to begin, but it’s never too late for any of us.

Rabbi Chaim Galfand is the rabbi for Perelman Jewish Day School. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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